What to do if your car has missing airbags

As we discussed in an earlier post, car dealers sometimes sell a formerly wrecked car without disclosing to the buyer that it's been in a serious accident. Maybe the most shocking is where the dealer repairs the car, but doesn't replace the airbags (and of course, doesn't tell the unsuspecting buyer.) In some cases, the airbag compartment has been found filled with packing peanuts or paper towels. Airbags cost $1,000 to $3,000 to replace, and so if the dealer buys the car at auction, fails to make the repair, and doesn't tell anyone, that's $1,000 to $3,000 of pure, dirty profit to them. Here are a few steps you can take to detect whether your airbags are missing:

  • Check the airbag compartment. Is there physical damage to any of the airbag compartments? Tears or scratches in the dashboard could be indicators that the airbags have previously been deployed.

  • Pay attention to the dashboard lights. When you start the car, the airbag light should go on for a few seconds, and then turn off. If they don't turn off, you might have an airbag problem. But also be conscious if they never go on to begin with. This could mean that the indicator light has been covered up or disconnected to hide the fact that the airbag is missing.

  • Take it to a mechanic. If you have some suspicion that the airbag is missing, a good mechanic might be able to tell, at the very least, that the car was in a serious accident. They might also be able to check whether the wiring on the airbag indicator has been tampered with.

  • Order a summary report. You can order a CarFax or AutoCheck report to see if the car has been in an accident. These summary reports are hardly perfect, and often don't show when accident damage has been sustained to a car, but they can be a starting point.